History tells us stories of our origin, existence, and foundation. Heritage sites are the tangible aspect of history from which we can learn and be connected with our roots. These buildings testify to the people who have lived before us, their traditions, culture, craftsmanship and ideologies. Preserving heritage buildings is an essential instrument in establishing a relationship between the present and the past, helping us learn. It not only promotes tourism but also builds the place’s cultural identity.
Hungary, a country in central Europe, is one such place which is a treasure box of historical European architecture. Budapest, the capital city itself, is a hub for heritage marvels such as the Parliament building on the River Danube, the New York Palace, the Hungarian National Museum, and the Vigadó concert hall. It presents a wide range of architectural styles ranging from Art Nouveau, Classical, Gothic, Baroque and modern. One of these heritage buildings is the Hungarian State Opera House, located in Andrássy Avenue, Budapest, following the Neo-Renaissance style of architecture with Baroque elements.
Formally known as the Hungarian Royal Opera House, it is designed by one of the prominent architects of 19th-century Hungarian architecture – Miklós Ybl. In 1872, Baron Orczy Bódog, director of the National Theater, proposed the construction of a permanent opera house. In 1873, an international tender was published for the design of the building. The jury declared Miklos Ybl plan’s as the winner. The city of Budapest funded the project, and Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary and the construction lasted from 1875 to 1884. On September 27, 1884, the Opera House opened to the public.
The structure was inspired by the previous decade’s Vienna opera house but was planned to outshine it in terms of opulence. The opera building served as a potent symbol of Budapest’s effort to overcome its inferiority problem compared to the Habsburg capital. In contrast, imperial authorities intervened to ensure that the Budapest tower was smaller than its Vienna equivalent to maintaining Austrian superiority. Architecture has a significant role in history, acting as a way to establish power and show supremacy.
The main grand facade of the building, the avenue and is made of stone in contrast to the two sides and back, which are plastered. The symmetrical facade design follows a musical theme with embellishments of two of the most remarkable Hungarian composers Ferenc Erkel and Franz Liszt sculpted by Alajos Stróbl. The opera house can be entered through all four sides from a projected level containing 5 axles. Statues crown the balustrades above the main gate.
The Opera house building consists of a basement, ground floor, mezzanine (stage level) and further four levels. The main staircase in the richly decorated lobby from the front entrance leads towards the horseshoe-shaped auditorium and subsequently to the cafeteria on the second floor. Marble columns line up the foyer and the vast stone stairway is adorned with wrought iron columns. A Grand staircase has always been an important element of opera houses which acts as a platform to flaunt royalty and going to the opera was considered a massive social affair.
The 4 storeyed horseshoe-shaped auditorium has a vaulted ceiling which is painted by the remarkable Bertalan Székely and Mór Than depicting the nine muses- goddesses of literature, science, and the arts. The royal box occupies the centre of the three-story circle. The four operatic voices – soprano, alto, tenor, and bass – are represented by the sculptures decorating the royal box.
It was the first theatre in Hungary to be equipped with the Asphaleia system which is a hydraulic system to lift the stage at different levels. The stage was divided into 4 streets and each could be lifted either 4 metres above the stage level or 2.2 metres below.
The building has gone through some changes with respect to historical events. Remaining intact during the second world war, operas were resumed in 1945. Five years later, it was presented with a new set of lighting switching from gas to electricity. In 1980, it was closed for the capital master plan but was again opened in 1984. Today, it houses the Budapest Opera Ball, a social event tracking back its roots to 1886.
Royal heritage impacts three kinds of aspects of any place- Social, Political and Historical. The social aspect brings in a sense of association and inclusiveness for the citizens since these kinds of buildings act as a representation of their traditions and practices. The political aspects bring in a sense of power and architecture acts as one of the major ways to impose supremacy for ages. The historical aspect brings us an educational resource and helps us to learn what kind of work is done in the past and what can we take away from those learnings, especially as architects and designers. Hungarian Opera house stands strong to tell the story of an architectural era in Budapest’s history.
- Sisa, J., n.d. Motherland and Progress.
- Icomos.org. 2022. [online] Available at: <https://www.icomos.org/charters/venice_e.pdf> [Accessed 18 May 2022].
- HiSoUR – Hi So You Are. 2022. Historical architecture in Hungary. [online] Available at: <https://www.hisour.com/historical-architecture-in-hungary-32740/> [Accessed 18 May 2022].
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- Matthew Rampley; (2019) Motherland and Progress: Hungarian Architecture and Design 1800–1900</i>Edited by József SisaTranslated by Stephen KaneBasel: Birkhäuser, 2016.996 pp.; 767 color ills.Cloth $112.00ISBN 9783035610093 . West 86th: A Journal of Decorative Arts, Design History, and Material Culture, doi:10.1086/704653